Last month the Marina Times ran a quality of life survey, and it comes as no surprise that the two major concerns for city residents remain homelessness and property crime. I’ll offer some solutions for homelessness next month in a feature story about my visit to a successful program called Community First Village in Austin. But this month, I thought it was time to weigh in on San Francisco’s property crimes gone wild.
Everyone agrees we have a huge problem, and last year the FBI confirmed what we already knew — the city had the highest per capita rate of property crimes among the 20 most populous U.S. cities in 2017, racking up 6,168 crimes per 100,000 people (the equivalent of about 150 per day). While everyone agrees there is a problem, there is wide disagreement about where to place culpability. The police blame the district attorney, the district attorney blames the police, and residents are caught in the middle just wanting things to change.
Lately, both agencies seem to be getting that and are working more cohesively. For example, the police are working with prosecutors to home in on the most egregious offenders, a small group of mostly gang members who commit the majority of auto burglaries. The strategy paid off, with car break-ins falling 17 percent in the first three months of 2018. Still, we have a long way to go before residents don’t have to hold their breath every time they walk out to their cars in the morning.
The San Francisco Police Department does a fairly good job of arresting serial drug dealers (special kudos to the hardworking officers in the train wreck Tenderloin), but their record is dismal when it comes to auto break-ins, with an arrest rate of just 1.6 percent. The Mission District was hit the worst, which is nothing new. Several years ago I heard a woman tell a beat cop that her car had been stolen a block from her home on Valencia Street for the sixth time in three years. I asked why this was so prevalent. “We call it irrevocable parole,” the officer explained. “Last week I caught a guy stealing a car who was on parole for stealing a car, and he was cited and released.”
I believe part of the problem is the SFPD’s property crime nonpursuit policy, which is understandable if they’re chasing a car thief through the Financial District at rush hour, but that’s often not the case. One reader told me about his car, which had been stolen three times in a year. The police actually caught the thieves in the act during the third incident, which took place in a secluded area of Golden Gate Park. The perpetrators jumped out of the car and ran while the police watched. It seems the nonpursuit policy should be altered with some common sense discretion.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced in late 2018 he wouldn’t run for a third term. At the time he said it was because he needed to move back to Los Angeles to be closer to his ailing mother, but now it appears he plans to run for district attorney there, where he served as police chief prior to accepting that role in San Francisco. He was later elected to his current post twice, but it was no secret he would face competition this time around, which in politics translates to “We think we can beat the incumbent” — never a good sign.
Gascón’s record as San Francisco’s district attorney is not as bad as his critics believe. For the majority of his eight-year term he had a charge rate roughly the same as his predecessors, but in 2017 it was the city’s highest in 20 years. He also achieved a 5.1-month average sentence for auto burglaries (sadly considered a fairly long sentence for that crime). His record as police chief was also markedly better than that of his successor, Greg Suhr, with an 18 percent arrest rate (it dropped to 9 percent under Suhr). Of the 6,500 cases filed by Gascón’s office each year, the conviction rate is 84 percent.
After 2014, Gascón’s popularity took a hit as the coauthor of Proposition 47, the controversial California criminal justice reform initiative supported by 80 percent of San Francisco voters. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018, Gascón touted Proposition 47 as a necessary step in “putting the war on drugs behind us” by reducing simple drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor. It also increased the felony theft threshold for some property crimes (not auto burglary, he points out) from $400 to $950 to “keep pace with inflation.” Sounds reasonable, but all San Franciscans see is the explosion of personal drug use in front of their homes and their children’s schools.
A few weeks ago I saw three men pulling drug paraphernalia out of their backpacks on Chestnut Street at 2 p.m. on a Monday. I’m also fairly certain the increased threshold for “some property crimes” has led to the proliferation of “smash and grabs” at high-end Union Square boutiques as well as shoplifting at grocery stores. (That’s why toothbrushes are locked up like the Hope Diamond.)
Despite Gascón’s assertions in the San Francisco Chronicle that “only 19 people were released from custody in San Francisco when the initiative passed,” a 2018 report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California concluded that passage of Proposition 47 contributed to a jump in car burglaries, shoplifting, and other thefts. For example, larcenies increased 9 percent by 2016, or about 135 more thefts per 100,000 residents than if tougher penalties had remained. Thefts from motor vehicles accounted for about three-quarters of the increase. Proposition 47 also led to the lowest arrest rate in state history in 2015 as police frequently ignored crimes that brought minimal punishment. Bookings in 12 sample counties dropped 8 percent for Proposition 47 crimes while cite-and-releases (aka “irrevocable parole”) increased.
Evidently Californians are gluttons for punishment, because in 2016 they passed Proposition 57, allowing nonviolent inmates to petition for earlier release and participate in rehabilitation programs. In 2020, voters will decide on a measure that would shorten the list of those who can seek earlier parole and reclassify some thefts from misdemeanors to felonies. It would also expand the number of crimes where DNA is collected, which was limited when some crimes went from felonies to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. Hopefully Californians have learned their lesson and the measure will pass.
Of course, none of this matters if judges don’t do their jobs, and San Francisco judges are notoriously lenient. Take for example Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite, who (surprise!) previously worked as an attorney under the late Jeff Adachi in the public defenders office. Hite dismissed every outstanding “quality of life” warrant (nearly 65,000 in all) issued between January 2011 and October 2015 because of a court-wide conclusion that “fining poor people is pointless.” It also rendered citations worthless, meaning police couldn’t detain court skippers. In 2018, he wanted to release Deshawn Patton, a sometimes violent and prolific car thief, from jail despite the grand jury indicting him on 20 counts (including 11 felonies) related to eight break-ins over a one-year period. After public outcry and the parole office deeming Patton unfit for the restorative justice rehabilitation programs, Hite sentenced the 21-year-old to four years in state prison (he will only serve about nine months due to time served and because he was charged while under 21).
As long as San Francisco courts are run by indulgent judges like Hite,
irrevocable parole will remain the lawlessness of the land.
E-mail: [email protected]. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.